PHIL BARDSLEY will play in a behind-closed-doors game at the Academy of Light next week as he makes his first steps back towards fitness ... but Wes Brown has suffered a further injury setback.
Neither Bardsley (ankle) nor Brown (knee) has figured in Sunderland’s 2012-13 campaign so far but while progress has been slower than expected, Bardsley at least is closing in on a return and is targeting a competitive return for Sunderland’s Under 21 side at Stoke City a week on Monday.
The right-back has not kicked a ball in anger for the Black Cats since the game against his former club Manchester United on the last day of last season, having suffered an ankle injury in only his second day back in pre-season training.
That injury – which eventually required surgery – meant he missed Sunderland’s entire pre-season campaign and the first two months of the Premier League season so far.
But O’Neill says there is now light at the end of the tunnel for the 27-year-old.
“Bardsley is making really decent progress and we’re trying to organise a game for him next week here at the Academy, even if it is only with the kids,” said O’Neill. “We’ve got an Under 21 game a week on Monday against Stoke and that would be a target for him as well.”
Sunderland also have an Under 21 game against Man United at Eppleton on Monday night, but that will come too early for him.
The first step is for Bardsley to up his rehabilitation work with head of performance Jim Henry next week, before playing in the training ground match and then seeing if there is any reaction.
O’Neill confirmed: “He won’t play on Monday, because he has not done enough rehabilitation as yet.
“Big Jim Henry will take him for a few days now to work on his fitness, and then we’ll set up this behind-closed-doors game next week.”
If Bardsley’s recovery progresses as hoped he may come into contention to improve his sharpness further by being included in Craig Levein’s Scotland squad for the World Cup qualifying double-header against Wales on October 12 and then Belgium four days later.
“Of course, there are Scotland international matches coming up and that might be a possibility, but we’ll see,” said the Sunderland manager.
But while the news is good on Bardsley it’s disappointing on the other long-term injury victim Wes Brown, who has now picked up a calf problem.
O’Neill revealed: “Browny has had a wee bit of a setback with a calf injury, and he is a bit down about that.
“The medical team tell me that whenever he comes back from injuries, his calves will always be a problem.”
Brown’s pain though is the only black mark in a positive week on the treatment tables with both David Vaughan and Fraizer Campbell now looking to have shaken off their knocks.
Vaughan played his first 90 minutes of the season in Sunderland’s midweek Capital One Cup win over MK Dons, showing he is now fully recovered from the hernia problem that saw him miss pre-season and the beginning of the league campaign.
O’Neill said: “He’s doing fine and will get sharper as his fitness improves.
“Missing pre-season was a blow for him, so he is effectively doing his pre-season work during the season now.”
Fraizer Campbell was on the bench at stadium:mk, with the foot injury he suffered at West Ham last Saturday proving to be heavy bruising rather than a break.
“Fraizer had his foot trodden on at West Ham,” said O’Neill. “It was really painful and there was talk in the dressing room afterwards of X-rays but it turned out to be no more than heavy bruising, so he was OK to be on the bench at MK Dons.”